What in the wide, wide world of Pettys, Allisons and Earnhardts is going on at Martinsville Speedway?
The quaint little paperclip in the Virginia hills is to NASCAR as Primitive Weapons Season is to deer hunting. In a sport that prefers to gallop into the future, Martinsville is a trip back in time in which rough-hewn graduates of the school of hard racing knocks enforce their iron will on unsuspecting novices.
On the surface, Kyle Busch's victory was business as usual, but Sunday's STP 500 victory was the 30-year-old Sprint Cup champion's first at tiny, flat, demanding Martinsville. It occurred one day after his first Camping World Truck Series win on the .526-mile layout.
"I think the biggest thing about Martinsville is the amount of off-throttle time that you have here is greater than the amount of time on throttle that you have here," Busch said after what was also his first victory of the season anywhere. "Being able to put together lift techniques and braking techniques, and how to utilize the speed of the car without trying to go fast..."
Say what? Without trying to go fast? Words from Kyle Busch's mouth? Sacrilege!
"You're trying to go fast," Busch offered as clarification, "but you're trying to do it while slowing down. That's probably one of the biggest things. I've never been very good at slowing down."
In other words, in a post-race media conference, Busch acknowledged the mysteries of Martinsville in a way that presumably no one but a race car driver and seasoned fans could possibly understand, but it was also a different wording of one of Martinsville's time-honored cliches.
At Martinsville, you've got to slow down to go fast. It's not a rule that is valid to the absolute degree. The track record has never been set by a driver who actually stopped.
|Upward Mobility at Martinsville|
|Driver||Finish||Career Wins||Pts. Position||Top 10s at Track|
It wasn't just Kyle Busch. The track that invariably rewards experience ended with five drivers in the top 10—runner-up AJ Allmendinger, third-place Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon in fourth, Brian Vickers and Paul Menard—who previously had combined for seven top-10 finishes in 58 tries there.
"In the past, it's been my worst race track on the schedule," Larson said. "so to get a top-three finish feels great, feels like a win, to be honest, and hopefully, this is a good momentum shift that we need. We've been struggling all year long...and been working hard, but it hasn't paid off."
Busch led 352 out of 500 laps. It's no surprise that he got the hang of it. Still entering the prime of his career, Busch has already won at all but three of the tracks the Sprint Cup Series visits. Those who crossed the finish line behind him were the primary surprises and offer hope for where the season goes from here.
In the short term, the season goes to two more short tracks, Bristol and Richmond, in the next three weeks. In the long run lies the prospect of spreading the glory around a bit. The season to date has been marked by both exciting finishes—this one wasn't a particularly notable example—and the usual suspects winding up in Victory Lane.
Six races have ended with Jimmie Johnson winning twice and single victories for Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Busch. Only Hamlin has failed to win a championship, and he's come close.
Even Danica Patrick spent part of the latter stages in the top 10 Sunday, though she fell calamitously to 16th in the final laps.
Busch and Carl Edwards, who finished sixth, both credited Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Hamlin for helping them learn the quirky track's nuances. Hamlin, five times a Martinsville winner, crashed on the 22nd lap and placed next to last.
Hamlin told Fox Sports his crash was "a little embarrassing" and "a bit of a rookie move on my part."
Johnson has eight career victories at Martinsville. The best he could manage this time was ninth.
NASCAR could use the occasional topsy-turvy race. Martinsville was an unlikely track to provide it.
Upward mobility at the track most akin to a feudal barony may have been more than an isolated peasant revolt. It may have been a signal of things to come. Busch's victory wasn't exactly a stunner, but the roster of those who came relatively close was startling.
During the telecast, Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip suggested that road-racing specialists somehow had an edge, this in spite of the fact that no two tracks are more dissimilar than Martinsville and Watkins Glen, where Allmendinger claimed his only Cup victory to date on August 10, 2014.
"I know, the first couple times I came here, I couldn't figure this place out to save my life," Allmendinger said. "You know, it's just a rhythm race track.
"There's a fine line between needing to be aggressive enough, using the brakes and the things you have to do to go fast, and then overusing them, and that's kind of the way road-course driving is. It's always a fine line. You can be aggressive, but you've got to know that line to where you overstep it. I would say a place like Richmond (April 24), that's way more finesse and things like that."
The notion that the fundamentals of road racing apply to a flat, tiny oval seems as counterintuitive as that of "slowing down to go fast."
What may be more pertinent is that the have-nots are catching up. When a season begins, and rules have changed and adjustments have been made, it's only natural that the monied elite are ready from the moment the first engines roar to life in Daytona Beach.
"We've maximized," Allmendinger said. "That's the biggest thing we said. If we just maximize our finishes, whether they're top-five, or you're running 20th and you can get 18th out of it, that's what you have to do."
For whatever reason, a startling number of also-rans maximized at an unusual location. With more short tracks on the way, it may furnish a new element of surprise.
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All quotes are taken from NASCAR media, team and manufacturer sources unless otherwise noted.